Mahogany is the dark, hard, close-grained wood of the Swietenia mahogany tree, which is indigenous to Central America and the West Indies. A heavy, durable wood, close and straight in the grain, with curls in the figure, light red in color when cut, and becoming deeper and richer in hue with exposure, the properties of the wood had been noted by the carpenter on board Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship during the voyage of exploration to South America in 1595.
However, mahogany was not used for furniture in England and the American colonies until the third decade of the 18th Century, though it was known in the late 17th Century as one of the timbers grown in Jamaica. For some time after it came into general use for cabinetmaking and joinery, it was called Jamaica wood because that island was the chief source of supply. Also, Jamaican merchants not only dealt in the indigenous timber, but imported Spanish mahogany from Cuba and Honduras and shipped it to England.
In 1720, the walnut wood famine in France, and the consequent embargo placed by the French authorities on the exportation of timber forced English craftsmen to put greater reliance than formerly on the supply of native trees. The darker Virginian black walnut, which resembles mahogany, was also imported. But, the supply obtained from these sources was insufficient. As a consequence, a number of London makers turned to mahogany.
Mahogany began to supercede walnut in general use in the making of furniture in England during the second quarter of the 18th Century and rapidly gained favor. Mahogany was superior to walnut in several respects:
Mahogany had no marked effect on furniture design until the middle years of the 18th Century, and until quite late into that century, it was used concurrently with walnut by fashionable cabinetmakers. Many early mahogany pieces corresponded exactly in design with counterparts in walnut. Spanish mahogany lacked figure, however, and the process of veneering was not employed. The aspect of such furniture was somewhat austere as a consequence and was relieved in three ways:
Flat surfaces became serpentine, bow or hollowed. The decorative matched veneers of the walnut period were gradually replaced by carved enrichment.
Francois de la Rochefoucauld, who visited England in 1784, said:
"It is remarkable that the English are so much given to the use of mahogany; not only are their tables generally made of it, but also their doors and seats and the handrails of their staircases."